2012 Stanley Cup playoffs: Twitter venom undermines what should have been milestone moment

Mike Wise
Columnist April 27, 2012

The mother called the radio station wanting to talk about the fallout from Joel Ward’s Game 7 overtime goal, how some vile bigots had used a social-media forum to express their hate that a very good hockey player from Canada, who happens to be black, had eliminated their beloved Bruins from the NHL playoffs.

Because we had moved on to a segment about Robert Griffin III, she never got on the air. But I was curious about her take. During a break at the 106.7 The Fan studios in Lanham, I picked up Line 3.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“I’m a white woman, and I’ve been married to a black man for 15 years,” Carolyn said. “Our son and I love hockey. He wants to get more involved and play the sport.

“But his father has had some rough experiences in his life, where it’s basically been made known to him that this is a white man’s sport and to not even think about it. He went through some ugly stuff growing up.”

When Ward (whose parents are from Barbados) flailed that backhander past Bruins goalie Tim Thomas on Wednesday night, he became the first black player in NHL history to clinch a series in overtime with a goal. He also provided Carolyn with her strongest argument yet for letting her son play the game.

But the other side of that debate arrived minutes after the goal, in the form of the absolute gutter of Twitterverse. Among the least objectionable Tweets (and almost the only two not to use the N-word preceded by a expletive adjective): “The only reason Joel ward is playing hockey is because he got cut from the basketball team in high school #gorilla” And, “Warning to Joel Ward. Your one of three black guys in Canada. I will find you . . . and I will kill you.”

Ugh.

“We have this great, prideful moment where I can point to a player like Joel Ward and say, ‘Look, he made it,’ and then comes this awful stuff afterward,” Carolyn said. “I honestly hope my husband doesn’t hear about it or read anything about it on the Internet, because it will reinforce all his ideas that our son shouldn’t play.”

I thanked Carolyn and said I would relate her story. And then I picked up Line 4:

“Hey, I just wanted to tell you I’m a black man, been married to a white woman for 15 years. We have a son . . .

I bet the caller I knew his wife’s name.

“Huh?”

“Carolyn. Your wife’s name is Carolyn, right?”

“Wait. How the . . .

Would you let your mixed-race kid play hockey? What if you knew there were some hateful people, albeit an infinitesimal percentage, who were hellbent on discouraging people of color from lacing up skates and pushing pucks across the ice? Would you want to subject your child to even the chance of that kind of abuse?

I admit I’d have second thoughts. Ward’s goal should have been a watershed moment. Anson Carter, the former Bruins and Capitals player who is black, called it one of the biggest NHL moments ever for a black player. But before the joy could spread, before it could invite kids into ice rinks the way Charlie Sifford’s or Tiger Woods’s achievements invited them onto golf courses, a handful of idiots stood in those doorways and said, “You’re not welcome here.”

I was originally reluctant to bring up this story because, in some ways, it gives power to the very ugliness that most of us want done away with. But let’s be clear: This was a public forum, not someone’s living room.

For that, these lowlifes get unintended credit. They made their identities known, many with smiling mugs and family surnames. So to hockey fans who don’t share their lowlife views and think a tiny minority is maligning an entire fan base, I say this: You know who they are; defend your game. If you employ any of these angry bigots, fire them. If you’re on Twitter, tell them their venom will not be tolerated.

For his part, Ward refuses to give it any more attention than he feels it deserves.

“I know what I signed up for,” he said Friday after Capitals’ practice. “I’m a black guy playing a predominantly white sport. It just comes with the territory. I would be naive or foolish to believe or think that it doesn’t exist. It’s part of life.”

Finally, before Carolyn and her husband decide whether to let their son play, a story that might help: Tarik El-Bashir, who writes about hockey for The Post and happens to be African American, grew up playing the game. He heard a few things as a black kid among white teammates, he said, but nothing terrible. His wife is mixed race. And they let their son play. Trust me, he’s good.

“As shocked and appalled as I was when I saw those Tweets, it never even crossed my mind that he should grow up playing basketball because his skin is brown,” Tarik said. “I grew up playing hockey. I loved it. So as soon as he was old enough, we put him on skates.”

Look, the closest hockey series statistically in the history of the NHL — the Capitals beat the Bruins by an aggregate score of 16-15 — was won by a gritty winger, who, in a predominantly white sport, happens to be black. Period.

When all of us can can focus solely on that thought, then the NHL moves toward becoming a genuinely inclusive sport.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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